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10th February
2009
written by Tony
Fist pump!

Fist pump!

I have been putting this review off. Not because I didn’t like the book and not because I am lazy (though I am). Mostly because I just can’t figure out how I feel about this damn book. I also can’t decide whether Kunzru is a well-disguised good writer or a patently oblivious semi-talented writer. Having never read any other Kunzru, much of this may be speculation. A little background before I begin the formal review: this is a member of the Tournament of Books reading list. A list that has been tirelessly wearing Steph down with clunkers and boat anchors. Early on Steph asked me if I wanted to weigh in on any of the ToB picks, and I arbitrarily decided to give this one a shot. As time went on (and I plowed through the works of Oscar Wilde) and Steph read more of the ToB selections I became nervous. The other books on the list were really terrible, and the normally respectable ToB benchmark was being called into question (by Steph). Had I made a Mistake (yes, a capital “M” mistake)? The answer is… I don’t think so. Mostly not, I’d say. At worst, only a small “m” mistake. There are things I really like about the book, and things I don’t. The writing overall is unremarkable. Kunzru is by no means a wizard with language, but he does generally write solid prose that manages to stay out of the way of the general storytelling experience. So that isn’t really adding to either the like or dislike column. However. I hate the people in this book. Hate. Them. They are, for the most part, pretentious, assuming, delusional, naive, pseudo-counterculture wannabes that get on my last nerve. Now, this is not necessarily a negative. It all depends on how aware Kunzru is of his characterization of his mangy brood. For example, Steph asked me the other day what my favorite play by Shakespeare is and I said Othello, if for nothing else than how astonishingly evil and corrupt Iago is, I mean, what a character! He really makes the play powerful and affecting. But Shakespeare knew this, he knew exactly what he was doing when he created Iago. The problem with My Revolutions is that I’m not always so sure Kunzru knew what he was doing when he created some of these characters. The main protagonist is Chris Carver (aka Michael Frame) a man who changed his entire identity after some highly illegal actions in the 60s. Chris is essentially a pedestrian, he seems almost to have no will of his own. The few really revolutionary things he does throughout the book once he gets going seem to be motivated by nothing more than a desire to sleep with Anna, another revolutionary “junkie.” She essentially goads him into more and more fringe actions that eventually lead to their necessary, self induced, expulsion from society at large. Most of the book swirls around his on again, off again relationship with Anna, and as the book progresses this becomes more and more pathetic to witness. Anna quickly slides down a slope of self-induced martyrdom, sacrificing her entire identity to whatever cause she is a part of at the moment. Thankfully, Kunzru’s writing is subtle enough to show Anna’s true colors – she is conflicted, hollow, and shallow and uses her revolutionary actions as a way to compensate for her own lack of internal strength. Chris is a moth to a flame when it comes to Anna. Even after a rather disturbing interrogation where Anna reveals she would have killed him had he failed, he still “manages” to have sex with her immediately afterword, seemingly without any reservations about how depraved the whole thing is. So there it is, two characters that I found it almost impossible to empathize with at any point in the story. However, there is another main character, and he is the only thing that makes me think Kunzru may have known what he was doing with these horrible people. Miles, the documentarian who is a fringe presence throughout the prologue of Chris's life, comes back to find the now 50 year-old Chris and at the very end of the book pointedly states that Chris was a non-entity and the things he did or did not do in his glory days were meaningless. Thank you! Miles serves to essentially tear apart the delicate illusion of social radicalism that Chris and company had worked so long to create - for the reader. I make this point very deliberately, as Miles’s derision seemed not to reach Chris in a real way. So we have these people. People who are oblivious to their own situation and are trying to change society to fit their limited scope with no real idea of what the result will be. And they are trying to do it from the outside, totally disconnected from the people they are trying to change, a method that never works. In a sense, they just act out in increasingly violent (and therefore hypocritical) ways with no real destination other than the demise of the ever present and poorly defined “bourgeois.” The conflict created by the utter hypocrisy of their actions and the dissonance that drives them on to become terrorists more than anything else is actually fairly engaging, and the most redeeming part of the book. However. I think, ultimately, there is something about the way Kunzru treats his characters that suggests that he thinks they are generally okay, especially Chris. We only ever see Anna through Chris’s rose colored glasses, and he certainly spends enough time making excuses for her without ever coming to the conclusion that she might actually just be terrible, rather than confused or lost or anything else he may think. Even Chris’s “redemption” at the end of the book is a forced one, something that would have happened whether he took responsibility for it or not. I just can’t get over the feeling that Kunzru didn’t really think about the repercussions of his characterizations. I feel like he just laid out some people that he thought fit the archetype of the 60s revolutionary in order to make his story sound more authentic, but instead he managed to create this delightful “do as I say, not as I do” situation that totally invalidated everything his characters were so valiantly struggling for. I don’t think, from the tone Kunzru takes, that he meant the revolutions to seem so selfish and pointless. So, as I said, I’m unable to tell if this was skillful writing or happy accident. As such, I feel like an actually skillful writer would have left no doubt. 3 out of 5

4 Comments

  1. 02/10/2009

    I don’t think I would enjoy this book very much. In fact, I feel like all the books that have been reviewed here for the tournament of books have been less than appealing to me. It kind of makes me want to give up on this competition, but I keep hoping something extraordinary will come out of all this. I am beginning to fear that they will all be mediocre. Very astute review, by the way.

  2. 02/10/2009

    Thanks! I actually ended up contemplating this book a lot more than I expected, so I guess that does give it a little more merit than I initially suspected, though I still couldn’t make a strong recommendation out of it to anyone. So far this is the fifth book out of the 16 on the list, and I feel that with the 50% mark coming up rapidly without anything really standing out that this year’s ToB may be fated to be a failure. I’d be interested to hear the reasoning behind some of the choices on the list, as they certainly mystify Steph and me.

  3. Eva
    02/11/2009

    I’m not a big fan of books where I hate all of the characters. I think an author has to give me at least one to care about!

  4. 02/11/2009

    @Eva: Fair enough, and I think that is the biggest part of why this book was mostly a fail. If there is no one to empathize with, then where is your investment as a reader?

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